SCOTUS “hamstrings” death row prisoners’ 6th Amendment rights

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In a decision that dissenting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called “perverse” and “illogical,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 late last month that death row prisoners can’t present new evidence that they had ineffective counsel in their state trials in their federal habeas appeal.

The case of Shinn v. Ramirez involved two respondents, David Ramirez and Barry Jones, who were convicted of separate murders and sentenced to death in Arizona.

Jones has always maintained his innocence, and there is a great deal of evidence supporting his claim. Ramirez has an intellectual disability and was subjected to severe childhood trauma and abuse. In both cases, their state-appointed lawyers failed to present this evidence, or any meaningful evidence, to bolster their defense.  

Because of this ineffective representation, Ramirez and Jones had the right to contest their sentences in federal court under Martinez v. Ryan (2012). And, in fact, in 2018, a federal judge ordered Jones’ release, and in 2019, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Ramirez’s case back to the district court. 

But, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) bars defendants convicted in state court from presenting new evidence in federal habeas proceedings if the evidence wasn’t developed in state court first. So, instead of simply retrying the two men, Arizona asked the Supreme Court to void Martinez in favor of AEDPA.

And the Court did just that. “Broadly available habeas relief encourages prisoners to  ‘sandba[g]’ “state courts by ‘select[ing] a few promising claims for airing’ on state post-conviction review,” ‘while reserving others for federal habeas review,’  should state proceedings come up short,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

In her dissent, in which she was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Sotomayor wrote, “The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial. . . .Today, however, the Court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right. The Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.” (Emphasis added.)

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